Nicolas Batum Kent Bazemore

NBA Playoffs: Sleeper Picks

The NBA has long been labeled as a league with minimal parity, and there’s definitely a case to support that argument. Dominant teams like the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs have rightfully earned the distinction of dynasties over the last few decades, leaving hopeful contenders in the dust time and time again.

But while some out of the loop pundits will say the commissioner may as well hand the Golden State Warriors the Larry O’Brien Trophy before the playoffs even start, the 2016 postseason is shaping up to be much closer than most people think.

When it comes to futures betting, a few squads stand out as excellent dark horse picks at their current prices. Here are my sleeper choices for the 2016 NBA playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks (+10000 to win the NBA title at Sportsbook)

For some reason, the Hawks are considerably lower on odds lists than their first-round opponent, the Boston Celtics (Boston is +6600). After suffering through a sluggish start to the campaign, Atlanta has been one of the best teams in the Association since the calendar flipped to 2016. The Hawks made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season before bowing out to Cleveland, and the roster is essentially the same this time around minus the departure of DeMarre Carroll to Toronto.

Atlanta ended the season on a 17-7 run thanks largely in part to a stifling defense. Mike Budenholzer’s crew allowed opposing clubs to shoot just 46.6 percent from the field - the second-best mark in the Association - and also owned the second-best defensive efficiency, just behind the San Antonio Spurs.

With standout players like Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap and ageless sharpshooter Kyle Korver in the fold, the Hawks have the sheer talent to go toe-to-toe with anyone. They’re incredibly undervalued, and I’m not exactly sure why.

Portland Trail Blazers (+10000 to win the NBA title at Sportsbook)

The Trail Blazers were a revelation in 2015-16 and are easily the most surprising team of the season. Four of the five members of Portland’s starting unit left in the offseason, yet they were able to put up a 44-38 record and finish fifth in the Western Conference. Point guard Damian Lillard is becoming one of the NBA’s brightest young stars right in front of our eyes, and the emergence of CJ McCollum has made this backcourt one of the most exciting units in the league.

Portland drew the Los Angeles Clippers in the first-round, which is considerably more favorable than a matchup with Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Clippers are a soap opera and have a growing history of postseason failures, which means the timing could be right for an upset.

It’s hard not to cheer for the Blazers at this point. While the odds are definitely stacked against them - they’ll likely have to face the Warriors in the second-round barring a miracle upset by Houston - I like their chances considerably more than sixth-seeded Dallas, seventh-seeded Memphis and the eighth-seeded Rockets. This bunch is going to be a playoff fixture for years to come.

Charlotte Hornets (+15000 to win the NBA title at Sportsbook)

+15000? Seriously?! The Hornets are by far the best dark horse pick on the board. Charlotte had a fantastic season, and their 48-34 record is even more impressive than it looks. Tiebreakers resulted in the Hornets garnering the sixth-seed in the East despite possessing the same record as Miami, Atlanta and Boston, but that may have been a blessing in disguise.

If the boys from Buzz City can get by the Heat in the first-round - a very possible feat due to the absence of Chris Bosh - they’ll have a much clearer path to the Conference Semifinals than other Eastern Conference teams. The Sportsbook of Miami-Charlotte will square off with either the Toronto Raptors or the Indiana Pacers, thus avoiding the Cavs. Toronto and Indiana are good squads, but they lack the depth and experience of Cleveland.

The Hornets can score with the best of them, evidenced by their fifth-best mark of 31.6 points per game coming from three-pointers. Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller aren’t exactly household names, but when you couple those pieces with the talented Nicolas Batum and Kemba Walker, you get a very well-rounded, formidable offense. Don’t sleep on the Hornets.

Which team is your top sleeper pick? Let us know in the comment section below.